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What Kind of Future Should We Hope For?

I’m not an especially emotional person. But the inauguration of Barack Obama brought me about as close as I am likely to get to being moved by a televised event. It wasn’t the screaming fans or the non-stop coverage of the Obama family’s every twitch—that’s just celebrity excitement, and often pretty shallow. It was the realization that we have taken first steps to move beyond a huge national shame. I am not yet an old man, but I am old enough to have seen (on TV) the Watts riots, the march on Washington, and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and (in person) “colored” restrooms and water fountains.

I felt a touch of pity for George W. Bush when the crowd booed him at his initial appearance at the inauguration. I felt a little sorry for him when all the attention shifted toward the new president with so much more expectancy than anyone had showed about GWB for years. (Losing the position of the most powerful man on earth is hard: after he left the White House, Lyndon Johnson was so depressed that he went home and smoked himself to death in just four years.) I felt sorry for GWB, but not enough to wish him back. History may note some worthwhile accomplishments in his eight years, but right now I’m glad we’re moving on.

The new president is still honeymooning, but you can be sure that before long critics will get back to criticizing. And some of the criticisms will be deserved. No human leader is a messiah. If I have a fear, it is that too many are expecting too much of the new president. John F. Kennedy wasn’t a hero until after he was gone; while he lived, many were aware of his flaws. Obama has flaws, too. (It would be nice if we could appreciate the best efforts of our leaders even if they don’t die young.)

Of course, there are other legitimate points of view than those President Obama appears to hold. I respect someone who, for well-thought-out reasons says, “I don’t agree with the direction this president wants to take us.”

What I don’t understand is when some talk as if they expect the new president to fail, and even hope he fails.

There was little about George Bush’s leadership that I appreciated by the time 2004 came around. Even then, I didn’t hope that he failed. I hoped that something he did, as much as I didn’t like some of his decisions, would work. (At least one I didn’t believe in—the so-called “surge”—appeared to succeed, and I’m glad, even though it was in the context of a war that should never have been fought.)

I don’t have unrealistic hopes for Barack Obama (or any other human leader). That’s a recipe for disappointment. But I’m praying for his success, just as I did for George W. Bush.

I was on Facebook during the inauguration, one of a few friends who were pretending to be hip and contemporary by participating in an electronic community gathering. One note came up (from a friend of a friend, someone I don’t know) about how we shouldn’t feel good about this event, we shouldn’t celebrate, because we Adventists know from prophecy that this world’s governments will all end in failure.

It annoyed me. Yes, everything ends. A newborn babe will eventually get old and die. But that’s not what you focus upon when you visit the happy mother in the hospital. A marriage may not make it. But you don’t talk pessimistically of a couple’s chances at their wedding. Your child may grow up to be a worthless bum. But you don’t raise the child planning for that to happen.

We Adventists have never sorted this out. Do we face the future with optimism, or pessimism? Do we expect good things to happen, or bad? Do we plan for a happy future, or a horrible one?

I’ve been on committees making decisions about new construction where one group will say, “God wants us to look successful, to be winsome and appealing. Let’s build something impressive.” Another group says, “Why should we build a new building, when Jesus is coming soon?” Usually neither side gets just what they want. So we keep erecting buildings, but mediocre ones.

Similarly, not knowing what kind of future to plan for, we may become mediocre citizens, and live mediocre lives. As a young person, I found the drumbeat of Jesus’ soon return was so loud and insistent that I doubted I’d ever get to grow up and have a home of my own. I thought I’d have to flee to the mountains to avoid Catholic persecution long before that could happen. How do you make plans for that kind of future? I knew a woman who was so convinced that Jesus would come before she could finish her education that she dropped out of college, sacrificing a promising career.

So do we dare hope for good things from a new president? I do. I refuse to begin God’s judgment on the world before God does. Jesus said that no one knows the time of his return—not even Jesus himself (Matt. 24:36). Why spend energy fearing an event whose schedule it is impossible for us to know?

I know he won’t be perfect, but for the country’s sake I hope Barack Obama succeeds, and that the country will be more prosperous and happy because he was president. I’m going to try to be supportive, including praying for him as Paul counseled (1 Tim. 2:1–4).

And if Jesus comes and ends it all before President Obama finishes his work, I’ll be even happier.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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